The Evolution of England's First Planned Community

In 1901, a team of social do-gooders teamed up to build a clean, green city. A look at their legacy, more than a century later

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Lawrence Hurley

In September 1901, 300 men gathered in Birmingham, England, for a conference on the city of the future. Back then, cities of the present left a lot to be desired. Severe overcrowding in urban centers across Britain meant that working-class families often crammed into tenements where privvies were scarce and disease rampant. Even if conditions in the big cities improved, many reformers believed, they bred a social inequality that was profound and intractable. 

But there was an antidote to the moral and physical degradations of the metropolis, a new urban model that would be healthier for body and soul: the Garden City. This would be a self-contained community of 32,000 set amid farmland, far from metropolitan smoke and grit.

Ebenezer Howard, the Garden City’s "inventor" (his preferred word), had a public relations exercise in mind when he chose Birmingham as the site of his meeting—incidentally, the first urban planning conference in Britain or America. There was a place Howard wanted the delegates to see. Four miles from central Birmingham, an experimental village called Bournville was being built next to the Cadbury chocolate factory. By 1901, it had 313 comfortable Arts-and-Crafts-style cottages with ample gardens, as well as shops and recreation grounds. A social and cultural center, a Quaker meeting house, and a school were started soon after.

Howard played no part in creating Bournville: it was the project of industrialist George Cadbury, a Quaker, who taught in one of the Quakers’ charitable "adult schools" in Birmingham and saw firsthand the living conditions endured by his students. Model-village-building was a favorite pastime of 19th-century tycoons, but Cadbury did two things that made Bournville exceptional.

First, he hired a gifted architect, William Alexander Harvey, who drew up lovely, varied yet economical house plans.

Next, adamant that Bournville should be more than a factory town, Cadbury established the Bournville Village Trust in 1900 to administer the estate and control future development.

The main aim of the nonprofit Trust was "to provide healthy dwellings for people, with plenty of light and air." Accordingly, it set aside one-tenth of Bournville’s land as public open space and retained the right to review all architectural designs. The Trust’s deed also committed it to "the amelioration of the condition of the working classes," which it has sought by mixing reduced- and market-rate housing in roughly equal measures. As early as 1906, only about 40 percent of adult males living in Bournville worked at the Cadbury factory; the rest worked in nearby villages and in Birmingham, commuting by bike, tram or rail.

In establishing the Trust, however, George Cadbury also codified his own brand of zealous paternalism. "Breathe through the nostrils with the mouth closed, especially at night," Cadbury instructed in a health guide he issued to all new residents. "Apples are the most wholesome fruit; they should be used freely, both raw and cooked." At an annual fair on the village green, children were weighed and measured to determine if their growth outpaced inner-city children’s (it did).

A century on, the Trust still rules Bournville with high ideals and tight reins. Today Bournville lies within Birmingham’s city limits and has upwards of 25,000 people, but there are no pubs (George Cadbury was a teetotaler) and the convenience store doesn’t stock adult magazines. About half the housing is subsidized. An incredible nine out of 12 Trustees are Cadbury descendants.

To some, Bournville will seem suffocating or even creepy, a real-life version of the heavily scrutinized 'Village' in the TV cult classic The Prisoner. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in Birmingham. Waiting lists for the reduced-rate housing are long and privately owned houses are sometimes snapped up before being listed for sale, says Alan Shrimpton, a longtime Trust employee.

People who move to Bournville tend not to leave, a fact that has made it older, and whiter, than surrounding neighborhoods.  

Bournville impressed and galvanized Howard and his delegates in 1901. Their tour was written up in countless newspapers, and word of Bournville’s success made possible the founding of Letchworth Garden City by Howard just two years later. It’s hard to overstate Bournville’s influence on 20th century planning: Cadbury’s experiment paved the way not just for the Garden Cities and the postwar New Towns that succeeded them, but was critical to the passage of Britain’s first town-planning legislation in 1909.

Below, a slideshow of some of the city's more modern sites:

About the Author

  • Amanda Kolson Hurley is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. The former executive editor of Architect magazine, she has contributed to Architectural Record, Next City, the Washington Post, and many other publications.